Friday 24 January 2020

Brendan Fanning: 'Munster need one of their backs-to-the-wall miracles to save European season'

JJ Hanrahan. Photo: Sportsfile
JJ Hanrahan. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Just when you thought Munster's soap opera at outhalf was about to reach its series-defining episode, you get the equivalent of a commercial break.

In which case the recently hamstrung JJ Hanrahan puts his hand up and takes the number 10 shirt. The sub plot thickens a bit with the 5-3 split on the bench. Where typically Johann van Graan opts for six forwards and just two backs, this time he has balanced things out a bit.

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It's never great going into a game where your playmaker and goal-kicker is carrying an injury.

A dodgy hamstring is not like a straightforward bruised joint where you suck up the pain and get on with it. That Munster are cracking on with Hanrahan anyway gives you a picture of where they are and how they will be approaching this game against Racing.

It was interesting listening to former Munster players last week presenting this game in career-defining terms. If you go back through their history Munster have a solid bank of examples where they delivered way above their pay load. It haunts a few of the current crew - Peter O'Mahony, Conor Murray, Billy Holland, CJ Stander - that each passing season takes them further away from the target of European success.

There are a few things militating against 2020 being the year they want it to be. First, their recent form is ordinary, and the hammering by Ulster in the Kingspan last weekend added to their grief. Second, Racing are in the same bracket as Saracens and Leinster, and should have taken four points instead of two from the Thomond Park tie. Third, the issues around Hanrahan's fitness undermine them in a game where, between the surface and the guaranteed benign environment, everything will happen at searing pace.

For the last week Racing's Munster contingent of Simon Zebo, Donnacha Ryan and Mike Prendergast will have been warning their colleagues about the danger of Munster playing for their lives. But it's an argument they'll have made before.

In Bordeaux two seasons ago Racing wiped Munster with a combination of power and pace that killed the game long before the Reds managed a better look on the scoreboard. Teddy Thomas, Virimi Vakatawa and Henry Chavancy were leading the charge, and will be again today. Maxime Machenaud started at scrumhalf that afternoon, and is on the bench today. The other changes to that backline: Brice Dulin, Juan Imhoff, Finn Russell and Teddy Iribaren are all top of the range.

In the wake of that defeat the volume went up on the disconnect between the quality of platform offered by the Munster forwards and the poor return from their backs. Stephen Larkham is making a difference to Munster's attack, but for pace and athleticism Racing have it in spades. So if referee Wayne Barnes favours the attack, and Prendergast, Racing's backs coach, is banking on that, it's hard to see a route that Munster can take to get into the game.

Harder still if Wenceslas Lauret and Antonie Claassen match, or subdue, O'Mahony and Stander, which is what Racing head coach Laurent Travers expects. He has billed this as a last 16 knock-out game. All five Racing players included in Fabien Galthié's France squad last week are on duty. Racing are all over this one.

Racing: B Dulin; T Thomas, V Vakatawa, H Chavency (capt), J Imhoff; F Russell, T Iribaren; E Ben Arous, C Chat, B Tameifuna, B Palu, D Bird, W Lauret, A Claasen, B Le Roux. Replacements: T Baubigny, H Kolingar, C Gomes Sa, D Ryan, F Sanconie; M Machenaud, B Volavola, O Klemenczak

Munster: M Haley; A Conway, C Farrell, R Scannell, K Earls; JJ Hanrahan, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, S Archer, J Kleyn, B Holland, P O'Mahony (capt), CJ Stander, J O'Donoghue. Replacements: K O'Byrne, J Loughman, J Ryan, A Botha, C Cloete; C Casey, D Goggin, S Daly

Referee: W Barnes (England)

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